Toward a Rhetoric of Fiction


A friend asks me why I write. It's a loaded question. I trip over some jazzy half-statements about language and the imagination. Finally, I grab a book from the shelf and comb through it for this passage, where the lonesome narrator describes his cat, Mr Tick:


You are alive, alive exactly, and it means nothing to you—much to me. You are a cat—you cannot understand—you are a cat so easily...I sink my claws into Tick's fur and scratch the bones of his back until his rear rises amorously. Mr. Tick, I murmur, I must organize myself. I must pull myself together. And Mr. Tick rolls over on his belly, all ooze.

I spill Mr. Tick when I've rubbed his stomach. Shoo. He steps away slowly, his long tail rhyming with his paws. How beautifully he moves, I think; how beautifully, like you, he commands his loving, how beatifully he accepts.


I read this aloud to my friend and let Mr Tick be my lighthouse. In fiction, language creates the people, places, action—not the other way around. A writer has to actually make something, not merely describe something that might be made. Mr Tick is a fictional cat; he reflects qualities of a real cat, but in this novella, 'In the Heart of the Heart of the Country', William Gass' goal is not to "accurately" or "convincingly" copy a cat from the real world onto the page—instead, he uses a rich language and syntax to create a new cat, one whose "long tail rhym[es] with his paws." So, my friend says (after I talked for too long), you write because you want to make a new cat?  Exactly! I say, I want to make a new cat.


A general definition: Rhetoric refers to the relationship between signal and receiver; where grammar has to do with words as objects to be taxonimized, rhetoric seeks the big bad why behind our language, the consequences of our efforts to communicate. What is the relationship between writer and reader? Why are either doing what they do, and how are they working together to create that feverish magic?

Fiction is a possibility space, where, to quote Lance Olson, "everything can and should be attempted, considered, and troubled." A writer creates this possibility space by using any tool at her disposal and pushing beyond the status quo, finding new ways of seeing rather than parroting the accepted ways of seeing.

Last year I read Fran Ross' 1974 novel Oreo, a highfalutin comic odyssey of a black woman seeking her long-lost Jewish father. I knew I was in good hands on the second page, when Ross sets aside "a word about weather": "There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats." Ross happily disrupts narrative convention, making use of diagrams, math equations, lists, a quiz; five pages are laid out like an upscale menu. Ross draws from Homer & pop culture, Yiddish slang & the Black Arts Movement. Though it felt inconvenient at first, I had a blast looking up all the Yiddish words, finding the story's analogues to The Odyssey. Ross was asking me to lean in & meet her halfway, and my attention was met with a hilarious story of identity & prejudice & the question of 'how much of who I am is where I come from?' With all her puns & passing references, she slows down the reader's perception, offering an entirely new, dreamlike experience, a looking-glass glance at black femininity. Reading Oreo is some of the most fun I've had sitting down.

When I was a fiction tutor, my last session with a student was always spent reading parts of Raymond Queneau's 'Exercises in Style'. The book opens with an anecdote: Queneau is on a bus & sees two people have a confrontation about personal space; later, he sees one of those men in the park, receiving advice about the buttons on his overcoat. Queneau repeats this anecdote 99 times, each in a different style: one is an Opera, with full musical notations included; there's a section for each of the five senses; one written as a telegraph; another as a cross-examination. Queneau shot a banal story through a prism of permutations, and each one changes the way we see its source. By the end of each tutoring session I was practically grabbing my tutees by their collars, screaming, don't you see? You can do anything! Every choice is available, and each one matters!

There are countless examples of rhetorically dense, meticulous writing like this, each one built, brick by brick, by great sentences. There's no time right now to go through the syntactic nitty-gritties, but to concisely make this distinction: a bad sentence stinks of utilitarian language, of unmeditated cliche & commonality: there are equivalences, the author grabbed whatever words were lying around but alas, they are all interchangeable. But in a good sentence—the aesthetically right sentence—everything seems in its right place, defamiliarized but strangely resonant; it reads like something untranslatable, like something that could be said no other way. Here's one from a Grace Paley story, where the narrator reflects on her ex-husband:


He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber's snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment. What I mean is, I sat down on the library steps and he went away.


The extended simile is perfect--how fitting, in a story about the working-class, to turn to plumbing? And the sentence itself seems to move like a plumber's snake. Like any truly great author, Grace Paley, a known troublemaker & oft-arrested protester, is full of surprising lines & sonorous sounds, giving the reader the pleasure that comes from a deepening of understanding, imagining what it is like to inhabit other selves.


A precise definition, via Richard Lanham: "Rhetoric is the science of human about the best ways of getting and holding attention with language, and shaping that attention to achieve particular outcomes."

Attention is hard to talk about because it's one of our most important human faculties. And I know this may be trite to say, but in our contemporary era, attention is highly sought-after & commodifiable & stretched thin as a kitestring. You have thought about Donald Trump every day for roughly 400 days. Every day your phone tells you to buy something, a landscape tells you to buy something, both the outside & inside of your bus tell you to buy something. Your attention is so valuable. In terms of rhetoric, there's a crucial division: art deliberately slows down attention and perception so that we are asked to re-think and re-feel form & experience. Entertainment, advertising, cable news, whatever, deliberately accelerates perception, asks for your passive (yet somehow undivided) attention, so we don't have to think about or feel almost anything other than our basest, broadest impulses.

Reality is not simply 'out there' independent of words and unchanged by them. Playing with language allows us to construct our own world and question some of the ways in which reality is perceived. I want a rhetoric of fiction emphasizing the reader as active participant, an approach to thoughtful language and syntax and form that opens a possibility space where the norms of the tangible world are challenged, leaving both reader and writer, in the end, imperceptibly changed.